Shuffling the Starters

The Wolves lineup shuffle only partly fixes their underachievement problem

To hear Wolves coach Flip Saunders spin it, the primary benefit from the revamped starting lineup he unveiled last Friday in Denver is getting more scoring from his second unit when Kevin Garnett takes a break. "Now we have Wally and Troy on the floor when KG goes out," is exactly the way Saunders phrased it on Saturday at the Target Center after the Wolves beat Portland to complete their first two-game winning streak in more than a month.

This line is meant to salve any bruised feelings Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson may be experiencing from riding the pine at the beginning of games. It also puts the best possible face on the questionable ways owner Glen Taylor's money has been tossed around. The Wolves are paying Szczerbiak and Hudson $85 million over the next five years, and another $11 million to Michael Olowokandi through the end of next season. But the team has at least temporarily stopped its freefall (10 losses in 14 games) and put together its modest winning streak by benching that trio in favor of Trenton Hassell (earning $23 million over the next five years), Anthony Carter (making the NBA's minimum one-year contract for a player of his experience in the league), and John Thomas (recently signed for the fewest possible peanuts, a stop-gap, 10-day deal).

Discount the spin and understand that the real upside to Flip's smart and (thus far) successful lineup shuffle is that it reestablishes the Wolves' identity as a defense-oriented ballclub. It's no coincidence that, since the switch, Minnesota has forced opponents to convert less than 43 percent of their shots and register less than 85 points in back-to-back games for the first time this season.

All year long, the Wolves have been plagued by shoddy perimeter defense, allowing a plethora of long-range three-points to drop through the hoop. When they've pressured those shooters, the squad has been beaten by dribble penetration to the basket. Hassell is the team's best perimeter defender and Carter their best defender at the point guard position. Together they make up a quick and dogged tandem that has greatly reduced the Wolves' woes defending the perimeter. The new group of starters also kicks Latrell Sprewell from off-guard over to small forward, a position that enables the 34-year-old veteran to conserve his energy for offense. Spree has responded to the switch with his two highest point totals of the season, while providing better defense in his matchups with generally larger but slower opponents.

As well as Sprewell has played recently, his inability to stay with opposing guards prompted the lineup changes more than any deficiencies Szczerbiak displayed. In fact, Wally could just as easily be the one racking up 25 points and enjoying the lift in defensive intensity Hassell, Carter, and Thomas have provided. But putting the proud, controversial Sprewell and his long-term, contract-concluding $14.6 million salary on the bench would have been too disruptive in terms of media attention and locker-room politics.

The most surprising maneuver in all of this is the emergence of Thomas, who was toiling in the minor-league CBA until Mark Madsen fractured his thumb a week ago. But Saunders correctly believes that Thomas is the right guy to take up where Ervin Johnson left off last year in the center's role: Set picks and don't shoot on offense, and aggressively defend against pick-and-rolls and dribble-penetration on D. This incredibly straightforward but effort-oriented duty is all the Wolves have required of Olowokandi--the top pick in the entire NBA draft at one time!--since they signed him to replace the departed Rasho Nesterovic at the beginning of last year. That Kandi has been unable to either grasp or carry out this rudimentary but vitally complementary role for the ballclub speaks volumes about the horrible reputation he has developed around the league. Sure, the Kandi Man will tease you with an inspired game or two or maybe even three. But since he joined the Wolves, Minnesota has been better off in almost directly inverse proportion to how much they have needed to rely upon him.

Before Wolves fans get too excited about this new and improved starting lineup, however, it should be noted that it is at best a short-term fix, destined to change once again when Sam Cassell returns from his hamstring injury. The Wolves can defeat mediocrities like Denver and Portland with their current complement of healthy players (and without Kandi, suspended for his comical hand-slapping "fight" with Nene in Denver), but for them to make any noise in the playoffs, they need Cassell as the engineer and number two scoring option on offense. That means the defense must compensate for Sammy's cobweb-footed movements on defense, making it all the more important for Hassell to remain a starter. The real question is whether Saunders will bite the bullet and use Carter as the defensive change of pace at backup point guard, rather than sticking with the unregenerate gunner and iffy defender Hudson. I'm guessing Carter returns to third-string status upon Cassell's return--at least until the Wolves suffer another bout of underachievement.

 
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